Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21

Arnold Schoenberg (composer)

Tracks: 1—Mondestrunken; 2—Columbine; 3—Der Dandy; 4—Eine Blasse Wäscherin; 5—Valse de Chopin; 6—Madonna; 7—Der Tranke Mond; 8—Nacht; 9—Gebtet an Pierrot; 10—Raub; 11—Rote Messe; 12—Galgenleid; 13—Enthauptung; 14—Die Kruze; 15—Heimweh; 16—Gemeinehiet; 17—Parodie; 18—Der Mondfleck; 19—Serenade; 20—Heimfahrt; 21—O Alter Duft.

Tags: Atonal, Unlistenable

Composed: October 16, 1912

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Arnold Schoenberg selected and set to music 21 of the 50 poems in the lyric cycle of the same name, written and published in 1884 by Belgian poet Albert Giraud. The work comes from Schoenberg’s “atonal” period and features a vocal part accompanied by a five-person ensemble — flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The work is generally hailed as a masterwork of musical expressionism; Schoenberg stated that the greatest goal of the artist is “to express himself.” In the cycles, Pierrot — the archetypical white-faced clown known as “Punchinello” in Italian and “Punch” in English — is represented (in some fashion) by a seven-note motive most easily heard at the very beginning of the first selection, “Moondrunk.” The work is effectively subdivided into three seven-poem segments. In the first, Pierrot sings of love, sex, and religion; in the second, of violence, crime, and blasphemy; and in the third, of his return home, haunted by his past.

None of this explanation saves this work from sounding like crap.

I love and adore Professor Robert Greenberg who, through his 48-lecture course from The Teaching Company entitled How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, 3rd Edition, has taught me so very much about music in every respect. Truly, I cannot recommend this course highly enough. I have listened to it — all 48 of the 45-minute lectures — three times, as of the date that I post this review, and I’m likely to enjoy it all over again, and more than once. With this and other lectures by Greenberg (all of them magnificent), I haven’t wasted a single moment of the time spent driving to and from my various appointments. Through his tutelage, through his combination of knowledge, humor, and thorough explanation, I have come to understand music of the western classical tradition in ways that most cursory listeners simply don’t get, and for that reason, I will unabashedly recommend every single course that he has recorded for TTC. Without such guidance, I would not have the faintest idea how to understand this work. However, at the risk of getting a failing grade from the professor, understanding it doesn’t mean that I like it any better.

The last of Prof. Greenberg’s lectures in this series focuses on Schoenberg in general, and Pierrot Lunaire in particular. It includes a selection of samples, specifically the first, third, and twentieth tracks of this work. These are, we presume, the best of the bunch, in which case I’ve no desire whatsoever to listen to all of it. I sampled segments of the remaining 18 works (each of these works is short, ranging from as brief as 17 excruciating seconds to 2:23, on the recording that I chose); that will be quite sufficient, thank you, and please pass the brain bleach.

It is said that this work was commissioned by a woman who, by all accounts, had little talent as a vocalist; she had Schoenberg create this works as Sprechstimme (“speech voice”), a technique closer resembling speech than singing. The result is a ridiculous pastiche of shrieking non-singing and instruments not playing. I am shocked to discover that there is actually a score to this insanity, since it sounds like random bangs, squeaks, failed attempts to play any instrument properly, and a vocal line reminiscent of a feline being alternately raked over hot coals and drowned in an ice bath. Although I’ve no wish to torture a cat in such a manner, I suspect the poor beast would sound better than this. (A friend observed that the vocal line sounds like a series of sound-bites from a porn film trying to pretend that it’s a work of artistic erotica.)

In terms of its impact on 20th century music, Pierrot Lunaire is compared to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I can’t challenge the idea that Schoenberg had an impact on 20th century music, but is the sort of impact that your insurance company doesn’t want to hear about. In terms of impact, it ranks right up there with having a meteor destroy your house, or having a single carelessly tossed match destroy everything in the Louvre. Stravinsky wrote some off-the-wall stuff also; Fireworks is frenetic, even cacophonous, but it requires musicians to play well what is written, and there are segments that are recognizable as music. His Firebird is lyric and amazing, and Rite of Spring has an almost programmatic feel. Even when expressing “Bronze Age Russia” (as music historians are fond of calling it), Stravinsky gives the listener something solid to hold on to. This fearsome farrago of ink dribbled on staves and a non-singer reading poetry with artless attempts at word-painting has nothing at all in common with what is even remotely called music.

I understand that the idea of expressivism holds that an artist should express what he wishes, how he wishes, and perhaps even when he wishes. However, until such time as I can bilk an audience of a thousand or more out of a hundred bucks per seat, walk on stage, puke pea soup on the piano, and be hailed as an expressive genius, I’ll continue to call this work (and efforts like it) crap. It is of a piece with the comment made by someone I met who held a Masters degree in art, who reversed the cliché comment by saying, “I may not know what I like, but I know art.” This notion appalls me down to my very claws and makes my tail itch and get all bushy. It is this idiotic concept that caused people to spend millions of dollars for a Campbell’s soup can (Warhol) or a canvas splattered by paintball shots (Pollock). Those of us who thought this insane were told that we “just don’t get it,” and are therefore unworthy of being in the presence of this “great art.” Bulletin from the Peanut Gallery: There comes a point where, even when we understand what the guy is attempting, he screwed the pooch, and it’s time to move on before he does the same to us and our wallets.

An additional comment, added some time after the original posting. There exists a trio of utterly brilliant geniuses known as Fascinating Aida whose wit in music and rhyme knows no bounds. Their hilarity is on display on a few bits of YouTube adverts, including “Dogging” and “Cheap Flights.” I bring them up because, in the advertising portion of the videos, snippets of other songs are presented. One of these songs, perhaps parodying Marlene Dietrich (among others), features one of the ladies self-incriminatingly singing, “It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune as along as you’re German.” I hope that the trio yet may answer my query if the monstrosity that is Pierrot Lunaire contributed to their creation of that song. (I’ve not been able to see the whole thing; for all I know, they’ve mentioned it in the song itself.) Theirs remains the best explanation for this codswallop that I’ve yet found.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *